Some Writers Are Never Satisfied

Roxane Gay recently pointed out in a Salon blog that all our discussions about whether women writers like bestselling Jennifer Weiner, who writes popular fiction, don’t get enough press coverage miss a major point. As Gay puts it so beautifully: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”

I learned this early in my publishing career when an author I was getting to know told me about a contemporary novelist whose first novel was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the New York Times best seller list, and sold 500,000 copies. That’s the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for. My friend had lunch with this author, who turned out to be very unhappy. Why? He hadn’t gotten a Pulitzer nomination, and couldn’t let go of the disappointment and frustration.

I know another best-selling author of thrillers whose name is truly everywhere, especially blurbing other people’s books because that name is red hot. This author is making millions from books that sell worldwide. There’s been one book turned into a successful movie, and a major monthly magazine did a long profile of this author. So what’s he pining for? Respect from established literary critics.

Another writer friend, who’s been invited to speak all across the country about her book, and has taught writing workshops more than once in great European venues, is devastated by not having ever been invited to keynote a small annual writer’s conference in her home town.

No matter what level of achievement writers reach, many of us cannot stop hoping for more. Sadly, we don’t wish we were writing better books. We wish we were better known, richer, more respected, adulated even, had more exposure or had what some other writer has. And that wouldn’t be enough, because for many writers, there’s never enough.

Gay’s essay was another voice in the controversy launched last year when Jennifer Weiner went public about not being as respected as Jonathan Franzen, not getting his level of respect or review coverage. A writer of popular fiction, she’s been a New York Times bestseller, has made millions from her books and more than one has been turned into a movie. It’s an enviable place to be, but she apparently envies literary novelist Jonathan Franzen, who’s made the cover of TIME and been the critics’ darling.

Whatever you think about her statements on-line and in the press, or about her writing, I can’t imagine Weiner would be happy if she had everything she thinks she wants, because there would be something else beyond her reach. She’s a writer, after all, and for many of us, our favorite music is what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the song of the self.” It’s a one-voice melody that runs up and down the scale “like a mouse maddened/by its own elusive tail.”

Excerpted from Writer’s Block is Bunk: Advice for Writers

8 Responses

  1. This post made me smile. Because I’m one author who realized early in the piece that I’m probably happier in relative obscurity. My more famous writer friends don’t actually seem as content with their lives as I am with mine…which has been very instructive. Sure, I’d accept more income from my books, but I’m not pining for it. And I never did want fame for its own sake. Thanks for pointing out how big a pitfall this can be. It’s downright amusing to reflect on these far more “successful” writers who are still unhappy and pining for what they haven’t got. But then, I guess that’s human nature.

  2. I suppose I’m begging a lot of questions with this, but I just want to tell a good story.

    What do I know, though? I haven’t even been published yet :)

  3. A few years ago I interviewed some successful scriptwriters for a Writers Digest article. Several were envious that I had published a novel – to them, novels meant freedom to tell your own story in your own way, rather than writing a script which got completely changed by other people. On each script produced, they had probably made 50 to 100 times what I’d made on that novel, but one was especially bitter because he’d had a smart college screenplay turned into a dumb, trashy movie, and felt he’d been branded as that kind of writer. Remembering that helps me keep perspective – the writing life might not be easy, but I’d rather be doing this than anything else!

    • The answer for me is to celebrate every writing-related joy no matter how small, and to not lose sight of the big ones. Many of those are surprises: my 19th book, a memoir, garnered me three book tours, two of them in Germany. I learned enough German to even do readings in German, which blew my mind, and made some lifelong friends.

  4. Chiming in late. This post made me smile, because you could plug in almost any other occupation for “writer”: farmer, politician, dancer, engineer, teacher, salesperson, manager, carpenter. Human. The drive for *more* is universal. If you’re a gloomy sort, you can interpret that drive as greed, and disapprove. Or you can call it “striving for better,” and applaud.
    Of course, the trick is to strive for better while being happy with what you’ve already done.

    • I think there’s a big difference when you’re a writer between striving for better and striving for more. I want my writing to improve from book to book, especially when I switch from one genre to another, and when I see that happening, it’s wonderful Greed to me is wanting more than one deserves and/or wanting what other people have and even not wanting them to flourish.

  5. […] who toil away at their crafts, only to be unsatisfied with the results.  People have pined that Some Writers are Never Satisfied and asked Writers: Never Happy with What You’ve Got? Once the results become attainable, […]

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